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Botetourt County approves wind farm permit unanimously

DALEVILLE – What could become Virginia’s first commercial wind farm took root Tuesday night in Botetourt County.

In a unanimous vote, the board of supervisors approved a special exception permit that will allow a renewable energy company to build up to 25 turbines on top of North Mountain, converting the winds that sweep across the ridgeline into a cleaner form of electricity than what comes from burning fossil fuels.

Jerry Fraley, who has agreed to lease his land to Apex Clean Energy for the project, gave a thumbs-up signal following the vote.

“Wind power is about as natural as it gets,” Fraley had told the supervisors earlier in the evening during a public hearing. “It’s renewable, unaltered. I call it God’s power.”

Standing up to 550 feet tall, wind turbines have been lightning rods for controversy in other Southwest Virginia localities, where nearby residents have called them noisy eyesores that harm wildlife and their habitat.

But those concerns represented a minority at Tuesday’s meeting, perhaps because the 7,355-acre tract where the wind farm would be located is so remote. The turbines would be more than a mile from the nearest home – and even there the occupant, Henry Gum, called them “pretty.”

Of the 22 people who addressed the board, 15 were in favor of the turbines, four were opposed and the rest struck a middle ground.

Apex, a Charlottesville company that has six wind farms operating in three states, now appears poised to have the first one running in Virginia by the end of 2017 on North Mountain, about five miles northeast of Eagle Rock.

With the special exception permit it needed from Botetourt County, Apex must still obtain approval from state and federal agencies. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will scrutinize the project’s impact on flora and fauna, and the Federal Aviation Administration will determine whether it would interfere with passing air traffic.

The permitting process is expected to last for the rest of the year, giving those who have raised objections time to be heard, Supervisor Todd Dodson said. Dodson directed his comments to Rockbridge County, just over the county line from the proposed wind farm, where concerns about views have been raised in recent weeks.

At a meeting Monday night, the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors asked Botetourt to delay action on the matter for 90 days, in part because it had received short notice of the application process.

Dodson asked county staff to reach out to their counterparts to the north. “I don’t want to ignore Rockbridge County,” he said. “We need to be good neighbors.”

Kris Baumann of Rockbridge County cautioned the board not to be taken advantage of by a company that will build a wind farm to collect tax credits, only to abandon the project later.

Baumann questioned the neutrality of a consulting firm that Botetourt County used to review the wind farm application, saying that one of its analysts had previously worked with the CEO of Apex at another renewable energy company.

Asked by Supervisor John Williamson to respond to the accusations, Heidi Alsbrooks of the Antares Group of Harrisonburg said she had worked for the firm in question more than eight years ago. But such overlap in a relatively small wind industry is not uncommon, she said in defending her current role as an independent analyst.

“I don’t think there’s any way that you could legitimately claim that I have a conflict,” she said.

Under its permit, Apex must abide by 17 conditions that go beyond the ordinance’s general requirements, which limit how high the turbines can stand and how much noise they can make.

The conditions include strict conformance with a conceptual plan, which calls for no more than 25 turbines; limits on the hours of construction; plans to preserve vegetation and prevent erosion from storm water; and updated studies on sound and shadow flicker produced by the turbines once construction is completed.

Dan Crawford, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Roanoke chapter, praised the board for its pioneering work.

“It’s time now for Virginia to enter the modern age,” he said.